This week, Fox's Empire premiered on Fox to 9.8 million total viewers. As TVLine notes, it's the network’s highest-rated series launch in three years (since Touch), and broadcast TV’s No. 2 debut of the season (trailing ABC’s How to Get Away With Murder).That's a game changer. Not only because it's the first TV show from director Lee Daniels. Or because it involves black Oscar-caliber actors working in the network TV idiom. But, as Kelly Carter wrote on BuzzFeed, it means "Being Gay and Black on TV Will Never Be the Same."
Now, don't get it confused. Despite all the accolades and positive press being heaped on the series so far (based on just one pilot episode), Empire is cheesy. It's a musical soap opera that focuses on Lucious (Terrence Howard) and his estranged ex-wife mother Cookie (Taraji P. Henson), and their three gorgeous sons: Andre (Trai Byers); Jamal (Jussie Smollett), and Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray).
The plot centers on a sort of Shakesperean dilemma of King Lear proportions since Lucious wants to bequeath his company to one of this sons, and he isn't sure who is worthy. Because Andre is too bourgie and buttoned up (he went to business school), Hakeem is a wild one, and Jamal, the most talented and the true star of the family is gay.
When I read the review by Jeff Jensen in EW, I almost thought he'd seen a different show than the one I had viewed. There's no subtlety — it's a lot of chewing the scenery, catfights, and clunky lines. Yes, the show confronts hip-hop's homophobia, but all the pimps and hos being presented are rife with racist undertones. It's more high camp from Lee Daniels — he loves a talented actress doing some crazy shit — being passed off as legit drama (never forget MoNique in Precious, Helen Mirren in Shadowboxer, or Nicole Kidman in The Paperboy).
Although Henson will definitely continue to get attention since she's playing a sort of drag mother in the show (and her costumes are that: over-the-top costumes!), it's Smollett as Jamal who is also the breakout star. Daniels wants to "normalize" gay romantic relationships and Jamal is a perfect boyfriend-type. We see him with his sexy Latino boyfriend in the first episode, and they seem like a romantic ideal for many twentysomethings to aspire to.
As Smollett explained about his character: It's “not shoving anything down your throat. It’s not preaching, it’s not telling you the way that you should feel about a certain issue, but it is giving you options. Lee holds up the mirror to us as human beings.”
For all the camp and circumstance, the clichés and silly antics there are moments that will certainly connect with audiences — espcially the mothers who will be tuning into to watch Howard and Henson turn it out onscreen — such as the flashback when we see young Jamal walk into the scrum of gangsta men in his mother's high heels. The abuse from Howard and Henson's empathy toward their son could be lifechanging for millions of little boys and girls across the country. Bravo, Daniels! But even more interesting is the revelation that his mother isn't necessarily a P.C., PFLAG parent. She's deceptive and scheming and calls him faggot behind her son's back. That sort of nuance is what I'm hoping the rest of the season can muster. In the meantime, we'll rely on Smollett to deliver the goods — as he did when he sang in the first episode.
Watch Smollett perform in the premiere episode of Empire below: